Flow of Ideas

The Speed of Life: The significance of Karl Marx’s concept of socially necessary labour-time

Michael Neary Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
Glenn Rikowski Faculty of Education, University of Central England, Birmingham, UK

A paper presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2000, ‘Making Time – Marking Time’, University of York, 17 – 20th April

“The first face of the future is FAST: speed will be everything. Never before has the future so rapidly become the past. History is accelerating …” (Patrick Dixon, Futurewise, 1999, p.1).

“You must save time. You save time by going faster: every technical, aesthetic, financial, economic and philosophical consideration of the industrial and post-industrial eras assumes that faster is better. Metaphors of time are miscegenated with metaphors of money and value” (Stephen Bayley, The speed of life, New Statesman, 25th October 1999, p.43).

“… [T]he new world of business requires an instinctive appreciation of a different logic… […] … Think of it as the “money value of time”. Cutting-edge people and companies are rethinking the nature of their relationship with time” (Gina Imperato, The Money Value of Time, Fast Company, January-February 2000, p.40).

“Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858 [1973], p.173.).


In contemporary society it appears that speed and the ‘tyranny of time’ (Reeves, 1999) are forces gathering increasing strength in all areas of social life. Matthews (1999) notes that, subjectively, we experience this as a sense of acceleration in our daily lives (p.44). These effects, notes Luke (1998), are ‘global in their scope and impact’ (p.163) – though he recognises that time-compression has differential intensity and outcomes in particular localities and for particular social groups. The speed of life has increased throughout society: objectively, as all social processes are subject to an increasing ‘Need For Speed’ (Matthews, 1999) as we try to ‘save time’, and subjectively as we experience the sensation of speed in social life (Gleick, 1999). For Luke, the speed of life in contemporary society has now reached such intensity that it ‘recreates the world as humans have not known it’ (p.165). Davis and Meyer (1998) assure us that we are not imagining things when we experience life as BLUR [1]. BLUR is an amalgam of connectivity, speed and intangibles (see Footnote 1), which, for Davis and Meyer, are the ‘derivatives of time, space and mass’ (p.6). These three phenomena in combination are inexorably ‘blurring the rules and redefining our businesses and our lives’ (ibid.) [2].

Existing accounts of the tendency for increased speed and the exhaustion of time in contemporary society typically posit a “fast” (Agger, 1989) or “turbo-capitalism” (Luttwak, 1999), but without providing an explanatory dynamic of the social drive for increased speed in social life. This paper provides such an explanatory dynamic. It unfolds a theory of the speed of life in capitalist society. This theory rests upon illuminating the significance of Karl Marx’s concept of socially necessary labour-time for exploring the social form of time in capitalist society. In moving towards this theory, is it necessary to indicate how it is grounded within a more expansive understanding of the social universe of capital. This involves analysis of certain forces at work in this social universe: value, surplus-value, labour and capital. It also involves delineating two structuring concepts: totality and social form. After this initial exploration, the paper proceeds to develop a theory of the speed of life in capitalist society through the writings of Marx, but also drawing upon the work of Moishe Postone (1996) on abstract time, historical time and abstract labour. The theory demonstrates how the social form of time in capitalist society incorporates absolute and relative moments. It is the latter that grounds the acceleration of social life in capitalist society.

Preceding our positive contribution, the next section discusses briefly two alternatives to the theory of the speed of life advanced in this paper: a focus on the communications and information technology explosion, and globalisation. This is followed by a section which contrasts the work of Barbara Adam (principally Adam, 1995) with that of Philip Turetzky (1998). Taken together, this body of work incorporates elements that our theory of the speed of life seeks to avoid. In the former case (Adam), it is argued that the movement from social constructionism to subjectivism ends in a relativism (and ultimately solipsism) that negates explanation of the subjective feelings of time exhaustion. In the latter case (Turetzky), the polar opposite dangers are uncovered: a-historicism, essentialism, reification, naturalism and an extreme formalism. In summary: Adam’s work provides rich social content (but fails to indicate an adequate social form for its analysis), whilst Turetzky’s theory of becoming-time incorporates a strong sense of form but has inadequate social content, which ultimately results in the reification of time (a danger previously noted by Neustadter, 1992). A third preparatory section deals with Adam’s (1995) explanation of the ‘speed of life’: which turns out to be a restricted notion of social speed generated by phenomena of aspects of economic life (e.g. profit).

The Time Lords

Social theorists have proffered a number of explanations of the increasing speed of life in contemporary society. The two leading forms of explanation are either those based on the explosion of communications and information technologies (which speed up many processes and activities within everyday life), or globalisation, or some combination thereof (e.g. Dixon, 1999).

A leading example of the first kind of explanation of the accelerating speed of life is the work of the radical social theorist Paul Virilio (1995) [3]. Virilio points towards the explosion of broadcast media and the ‘hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies’ (p.35) as significant developments making for an accelerated world where space, time and the ‘greatness of the universe’ (p.41) are ‘compressed in a perpetual shrinking effect’ (ibid., original emphases). The problem with this form of explanation is that it rests on a technological determinism. Virilio fails to theorise a social dynamic powering technological change. He faces the same problem in The Art of the Motor (1995) when he addresses the emergence of trans- or post-human life forms (e.g. the cyborg, as in Rikowski, 1999) [4].

On the second front of explanation – globalisation – the work of Anthony Giddens, and more recently Barbara Adam, has been significant. Moreover, these theorists have led general development in the social theory of time in the UK in recent years. In his latest book, Runaway World, Giddens (1999) explores globalisation as the force driving on the speed of life. He singles out the ‘new global electric economy’ and developments in the means of communication as key phenomena altering ‘the very textures of our lives’ (pp.9-12). Social geographers (see articles in Martin, 1999; Leyshon and Thrift, 1997) have also highlighted the new swiftness of computerised international money markets, the technologisation of banking and the developing virtuality of money as significant aspects of globalisation, engendering the speeding up of all forms of monetary transaction and economic relations. However, Giddens (1999) notes that globalisation is also pertinent when exploring social, cultural, aesthetic and other areas of contemporary life. Furthermore, globalisation is ‘not just ‘out there’, remote and far away from the individual’ (p.12), but affects the most personal and intimate aspects of our lives (sexuality, marriage, family), including how we experience time.

In earlier work, Giddens (1991, 1984) discussed how social systems are ‘constituted across time-space’ and hence an exploration of time and space is at the heart of his structuration theory (1984, p.110). Starting out from various theorists working within time-geography, Giddens shows that whilst the writings of these theorists provide a useful resource for theorising constraints on action and understanding how the routines of daily life are constituted, they also incorporate a notion of ‘the individual’ which stands outside ‘structure’ (1984, p.117). This disables attempts to theorise structuration as the simultaneous emergence of structure as human agency and agency as the constitution of structure.

Secondly, argues Giddens, the time-geographers operate with a zero-sum notion of power ‘as a source of limitations upon action’ (ibid.). For his structuration theory, however, Giddens favours a neo-Parsonian generative theory of power: a non-zero sum conception invoking the ability to get things done through co-operation.

Giddens ends his discussion of time with an examination of Foucault’s ideas on ‘timing and spacing’. It is Foucault’s neo-Parsonian, non-zero sum conception of power that particularly fascinates Giddens (see 1984, pp.145-158). Giddens is less enamoured with Foucault’s weak notion of ‘agency’. However, he expresses an interest in what Foucault has to say on the ‘relation of disciplinary power to modalities of time and space’ (p.153). Giddens’ discussion concludes that Foucault’s analyses of prisons and schools, as sites of the operation of disciplinary power where the control of time and space are integral elements, are ultimately unsatisfactory. Agency is too weak in Foucault. For Giddens, prisoners are not just ‘bodies’ to be punished in prisons; they are also agents – at least for those parts of the day when surveillance slackens. With this insight, Giddens moves on to the work of Irving Goffman, in search of better resources for theorising agency in the special case of harsh regimes where it is at a premium. This discussion loses the concept of time altogether, and meanders off into a Foucault/Goffman comparison. Interestingly, prior to losing his focus on time in his musings on Foucault and Goffman, Giddens notes that: ‘The buying and selling of time, as labour time, is surely one of the most distinctive features of modern capitalism’ (1984, p.144). He fails to follow up this insight [5]. Whimsically, he adds that the temporal regulation of the day ‘may perhaps be found in the chime of the monastery bell’ (ibid.). Though he points towards the ‘commodification of time’ (ibid.) in industrial capitalism, Giddens is disinterested in following up why this occurs and the social conditions generating the time-commodity. In later work (e.g. 1991), Giddens discusses time once more, but his interest in systematically pursuing links between time and globalisation wanes, ironically as the importance of globalisation in his most recent writings rises (in 1998, 1999).

Contrast: Adam and Turetzky

“… [I]n spite of all the progress, the nature of time remains to a large extent a mystery for us” (Igor D. Novikov, The River of Time, 1998, p.265).

“… ‘the Egyptian effect’ [Is] the tendency to collapse the ancient and the new into a single temporal dimension, arranging them alongside one another and leaving the resulting contradiction wide open …” (Mario Perniola, Enigmas: the Egyptian Moment in Society and in Art, 1995, p.74).

Development on the basis of Giddens’ thinking on the relations between globalisation and time is furthered in the work of Barbara Adam (1991, 1995). In Time & Social Theory (1991), Adam critiques Giddens’ early work on time (i.e. his 1979, 1984 and 1987). She indicates that his thoughts on time flow from Bergson’s concept of durée. For Adam, this is the ‘continuous emergence of novelty’, where the future as a form of becoming is in excess of phenomena as configured in the past (p.24). However, notes Adam, by the time Giddens comes to write The Constitution of Society (1984), his discussion of time ‘is compressed into a ‘sterile model where the durée of day-to-day experience is characterised as operating in reversible time’ (1991, pp.25-26). Furthermore, argues Adam, Giddens completely re-works Bergson’s concept of durée by an insistence that it expresses repetition. In upshot, Giddens ends up with a notion of durée that refers to cyclical (reversible) time and linear (irreversible) time. This is the standard dualist rendering of social (the former) and natural (the latter) time that forms the starting point for much social analysis of time, argues Adam. Throughout Time & Social Theory (1991), Adam argues consistently against dualism in general and the social/natural time dualism in particular. It is her particular approach to dissolving this dualism that interests us.

Whilst acknowledging that time is a ‘fact of life’, Adam seeks to develop a concept of social time that ‘encompasses its multiple expressions’ (p.24). Her starting point is the proposition that time is fundamentally a social construction. She notes that this proposition is in line with the perspective of most social scientific treatises on time (p.42). However, she acknowledges that merely stating this proposition is not enough; it does not dissolve the enigma of time – time as transcendent, i.e. a phenomenon which cannot be reduced to either social convention or a method of regulating social life. Thus: Adam has a complementary position where ‘the source of time must not be ignored since it is central to an adequate interpretation of time in social theory.’ (p.43). But this re-introduces the natural/social time distinction as a form of interactive dualism – where the concepts of social and natural time are implicated in the explanation of each other, but a dualism nonetheless.

Adam’s next proposition is that when social and natural scientists search for the source of time then it ‘is found to represent a multitude of phenomena’, such as:

“… physical entropic processes; life processes of growth, decay and information processing; mechanical, biological, and human social interactions; natural and societal rhythms; novelty and becoming; selves with identities, memories, social histories; and a capacity to communicate and synthesise. They encompass calendars, mechanical and atomic clocks; the motion of particles and light; and speed, velocity, and acceleration” (1995, p.43). From consideration of this ragbag list, Adam concludes that it is impossible to hold that all time is social. She maintains, therefore, that natural time is ‘intimately tied to the conceptualisation of social time.’ (1995, p.48), and hence theories of natural time need to be ‘recognised as an important focus for social science enquiry’ (p.49). On this last proposition, the social theory of time incorporates different conceptions of natural time existing in historical eras and in different societies.

Towards the end of Time & Social Theory, Adam can be found still wrestling with the natural/social time distinction. On the one hand, she holds that her Time & Social Theory has demonstrated that ‘the characteristics identified with natural time are in fact an exclusively human creation’ (p.150, our emphasis) – so that all conceptions of time can be viewed as socially constructed. On the other hand, she also maintains that her study of time shows that ‘natural time is very different from its social science conceptualisations.’ (pp.150-151, our emphasis) – implying limits to social constructionist explanations of natural time, and opening up natural time as a transcendent, a-historical constant. Still dissatisfied by theories of dualities which are ‘impervious to ecological principles or to such ideas as resonance and implication’, and noting that dualisms ‘entail an implicit hierarchical evaluation’ (p.153), Adam leaves the problem of adequately dissolving the social/natural time dualism to her next book, Timewatch (1995).

In the opening chapter of Timewatch, Adam nails her colours to the mast. She starts out from a discussion of ‘my time’, ‘our time’ and ‘other time’, with the implication that there are many ‘times’. The flow of time can vary as between individuals [6], social groups, societies and historical eras. In this way, Adam easily slips into a relativism (and temporal solipsism) which provides time sociologists with an infinite research and writing programme: the comparison of different social/personal ‘times’. Adam states two propositions underpinning this approach to time at the end of the first chapter of Timewatch: a multitude of times coexist; and, everyday language provides clues about the complexity of social times (p.42). This approach implies the task of time sociologists is to provide rich descriptions of different social/personal ‘times’. Adam’s two chapters (one on health and death, the other on education) function as examples of this type of work.

When Adam explores relations between time and globalisation (chapter 5) she reverts to a dualism based on the local-global. Thus, whilst her myriad social and personal ‘times’ operate at the local level, a standardised time is also established in the era of globalisation. Globalisation homogenises social time through standardised clock time. In globalised capitalism from the late twentieth-century onwards, a ‘global present’ is established through technological developments ‘from the wireless telegraph to nuclear power’ [7] (p.123). Confusedly, however, Adam still maintains that one of the pivotal concerns of Timewatch is the ‘subtle dissolution of dualisms’ (p.150). This is necessary to include the complexity of multiple social ‘times’ based on the personal, social, political, scientific, technological and global (p.151) – such that standardised global time becomes just one among many ‘times’. Later on, Adam draws back from a full-blooded postmodernism on the basis that postmodernists reject the totalising tendencies of the abstract form of time flowing from standardising, global clock time. She maintains that her position falls short of postmodernism as:

“I emphasize the uniqueness and relativity of time creation while simultaneously pointing towards the central importance and hegemony of the abstract, decontextualised, neutral medium of clock time” (1995, p.156).

Adam still maintains that she is not embracing dualist thinking here. Furthermore, she also confuses relativity with relativism. Adam claims that her theoretical position encompasses the relativity of the temporal whilst acknowledging that a:

“Focus on the complexity of time and spaces … entails a fundamental recognition of embedded, interactive knowledge which is principally relative” (p.162, our emphasis).

She attempts to avoid what she calls the ‘spectre of relativism’ by asserting that it is a consequence of the failure of representational theories of truth to attain a 1:1 relation between phenomena and representations. Adam implies that, as she does not hold to this conception of truth, then she is not haunted by the ‘spectre of relativism’. ‘Truth’ is obtained by consensus built within cultural, linguistic or moral communities (p.163).

Throughout her work (1991, 1995), Adam attempts to hold to a social perspective on time where abstract clock time is one of an infinite number of ‘times’. Recognition of the ‘enigma of time’, the notion that it is a ‘fact of life’ standing above life itself, leads her to cling on to abstract clock time as an expression of this enigma. Whilst asserting that she wishes to dissolve dualisms she holds to the social/natural time dualism, to the last.

Adam’s attempt to exorcise the ‘spectre of relativism’ from her social universe on the basis that she is dealing with the relativity of time rather than the relativism of ‘times’ doesn’t hold up. Her multiplicity of times nurtures the ‘spectre of relativism’ on an ontological basis: the social universe is composed of an infinite number of ‘times’. This is precisely why she needs standardised abstract clock time: our temporal experiences can be translated, compared and differentiated with reference to global time. Her programme for time sociological studies depends on standard clock time; but this resurrects the dreaded dualism once more.

From the outset in Timewatch, Adam embraces a temporal relativism, a temporal solipsism even (my/your time), which makes it impossible for her to generate a social theory of time. Her multiplicity of social and personal ‘times’ makes questions concerning the social form that time assumes in contemporary society unintelligible. When she has to appeal to a dominant form of time it is not a social but a naturalised form of global, standardised time measured by the clock. Adam oscillates wildly between treating this form of time as one amongst all the others, as a transcendent marker, as a hegemonic form or as a natural phenomenon. Adam’s rich descriptions of time in health and education contexts are interesting, but they merely re-emphasise her reluctance to search for a social form that can generate a social theory of time in contemporary society. In the event, Adam provides a description (or tableau) of social and personal ‘times’. It would be over-generous to say that Adam has a theory of social/personal times rather than a theory of social time. She provides no systematic discussion on the generation and genesis of social/personal ‘times’. Rich description ultimately falls short of explanation.

The work of Philip Turetzky in his book Time (1998) illustrates the opposite of Adam’s work. Turetzky has a strong sense of the form of time in his neo-Deleuzian theory of becoming-time. However, Turetzky’s theory of time lacks social content. It is a-historical, essentialist, embraces naturalism, and, in toto, becomes what Lukacher (1998) calls a form of time-fetishism. The time-fetishist seeks to uncover the essence of time, to ‘pin time down’, to get at what time really is. In the process, time is presented as a quasi-material entity, autonomous of, but having real affects upon, everyday life. The time-fetish ‘is precisely that which quickens the life of the subject by speeding up the circle of appropriation’, argues Lukacher (p.5). With this preamble, let us now turn to Turetzky’s exposition of becoming-time.

Turetzky’s theory of becoming-time arrives in the last chapter of his book. It builds upon an historical analysis of theories of time that starts out from pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and ends with Bergson and Deleuze, taking in many other influential time theorists along the way [8]. Thus, a summary of Turetzky’s becoming-time necessarily underplays the deep historical analysis that forms its foundations.

Turetzky develops a three-stage theory of becoming-time. It is based on three interconnected syntheses. The first synthesis of time ‘produces the living present’ (p.212). It connects ‘successive instants as past and future’ (ibid.). This points towards the flow of time. Time can’t be like a dot-to-dot picture, otherwise there would be ‘gaps’ in time. Turetzky posits this first synthesis as a connective one that binds instants into a ‘single time’ (ibid.). This first synthesis, notes Turetzky, is a ‘passive synthesis’ of time (p.213); that is, it precedes reflection and memory of individuals. It differentiates past from future, whilst simultaneously connecting them. It grounds (but does not explain) the living present (ibid.).

The first synthesis of time occurs in time, argues Turetzky (p.214). If this is so, then there must be ‘the past’ in which this first synthesis is consummated. The second synthesis ‘constitutes a pure a priori past in time’: it provides temporal space for the first synthesis. But the synthesis takes an odd form that generates paradoxes. These paradoxes are simultaneously constitutive paradoxes: they indicate why the ‘pure past must have its own being contemporary and coexistent with the present even though it is never present.’ (ibid.). The being of ‘the present’ requires its own constitution as past in order that it can pass and take on the notion of ‘past’. For:

“… everything past has already been constituted. The past, then, must be contemporaneous with the present it was. This explains why every present must pass; every present is already past when it is present. This paradox leads to another, that the past coexists with each new present with respect to which it is past. For, if every present is already past when it is present, then the past is not in any one present and coexists with each new present” (pp.214-215).

These paradoxes are crucial, notes Turetzky. They generate consciousness of time and the ‘conditions of representation’ of phenomena in time (p.215). The ‘pure past’, on this analysis, is a ‘synthesis of the whole of time’ – not just a series of temporal instants (p.215). It is the totality of time outside the living present. Thus, the mode of being of the ‘pure past’ is virtual, as its existence underpins every particular present. Since:

“… it is virtual, the past comprises the whole of time, but this whole differs essentially from any set of elements or instants. … This explains how the virtual past makes the present pass. Since it is the whole of the past that coexists contemporaneously with every present, it opens each set of presents on to a new present. … [And] … since the whole of the past is open, continuously differing from itself, it guarantees the irreversibility of time” (pp.215-216, our emphases)

The present, then, includes the compression of successive presents in the now (the living present) and this is also the ‘most compressed level of the past’ (p.216). Turetzky points towards the dualities involved here (to the horror of postmodernists): actual/virtual, present/past and material/ideal. However, as the present incorporates ‘the actual present and the virtual past’ then:

“… there must be an operation by which the present splits apart, making the actual present pass while preserving the virtual past there must be an operation by which the present splits apart, making the actual present pass while preserving the virtual past in itself” (p.217).

This operation points towards the third synthesis.

The third synthesis involves splitting of the present, and is the ‘most fundamental synthesis of time’ (ibid.). It gives substance to the other two syntheses. Time basically is this splitting:

“The third synthesis constitutes the past in the same time as its present is displaced by its successor. Time splits into two heterogeneous dissymmetrical emissions, one toward the future, making the present pass, and another toward the past, coexisting wholly with the present it was. The third synthesis, then, generates the other two. Essentially, time consists in this splitting, in the essential disequilibrium between actual and virtual, their displacement and the impossibility of their equivalence” (p.217, our emphasis).

Turetzky views the third synthesis as an empiricist solution to the transcendental problem, the problem of time seeming to be above and beyond human life, as eternal marker of existence. For Turetzky, the transcendental problem is solved in the following way. The first two (passive) syntheses of time give time its conditions. However, there needs to be a third element that facilitates the past making the present past – and the third synthesis enables this through splitting the virtual from the actual, and hence ‘keeps the past open, making the present pass in the production of something new.’ (p.217). Moreover:

“… by doing so in the present itself it shows how the ideal reality of the virtual past can belong to experience. While the first synthesis constitutes the present and the second the past, the third passive synthesis constitutes the future, producing something new by splitting virtual from real and making the present pass. The third synthesis evokes a Nietzschean eternal return, in that ever-new becomings arise in each moment” (pp.217-218, our emphases).

For Turetzky, the production of novelty through the splitting of virtual past from actual present constitutes the future. This process grounds time, which was previously transcendent, as the generation of new moments as future. Turetzky calls this ‘transcendental empiricism’ (p.221). His theory of becoming-time uncovers the ‘conditions under which something new is produced.’ (ibid.). Our experience of time as continually new validates the theory of becoming-time: this is the empirical substratum underpinning the theory of becoming-time.

A number of observations can be made regarding Turetzky’s account of becoming-time. First, it is formalistic and abstract, as the social content of the theory is minimal. Whilst the third synthesis grounds our consciousness of time through its splitting process (virtual/actual recognition), it does this purely at the level of the abstract individual. At most, it is an abstract psychology of time. Of course, the sharing of this experience and a theory of how this process becomes embedded within social life might be a way towards a social theory of time. But this speculative extension of the theory of becoming-time could also be construed as indicating that, on its own, it is not a social theory of time at all.

The abstract nature of Turetzky’s theory is at one with its a-historicism. It incorporates Perniola’s ‘Egyptian effect’ (1995), the collapse of the ancient and the new. It is a theory of time that appears to be above history – and at this point its transcendentalism, the transcendence of time above human history still remains, despite its ‘empiricism’. There is no sense that the social form of time varies as between social formations (e.g. ancient societies, feudalism, and capitalism). Indeed, the third synthesis, with its stress on the future as the generation of the new is explicated without reference to what is socially new, truly different. Thus: the production of ‘the new’ according to Turetzky’s theory of becoming-time appears to be an . Human agency and history seem to be inessential to the flow of becoming-time. At this juncture, time reasserts itself as transcendent (to humanity and human history, to ‘the human’ in general) and as natural flow. The theory of becoming-time, therefore, does not avoid naturalism; the notion that time is a natural phenomenon. From this, it follows that the search for the essence of time is a valid form of exploration. Once on this essentialist track, the notion of a social theory of time becomes subordinate to the task of ‘pinning time down’, of defining its essence, uncovering the “stuff” of time. For Turetzky, time is the third synthesis. However, once naturalism and essentialism are admitted then the floodgate controlling scientific theories of time is opened. Turetzky’s formal, logico-philosophical theory of becoming-time loses its lustre as big-time scientific theories of time are admitted into the field of enquiry. Once this is done, however, the search for the essence of time resolves itself into the progress of theoretical physics. With this move, some of the propositions within Turetzky’s theory of becoming-time begin to look shaky. For example, that the theory of becoming-time guarantees the irreversibility of time is not necessarily a useful guarantee once the scientific search for time’s essence is admitted. Recent research has indicated that the reversibility of time is a possibility in some parts of the universe (perhaps even within our own Galaxy) ‘where stars un-explode, eggs un-break and living things grow younger with every second’ (Chown, 2000).

The search for the essence of time, what time really is, also reifies time as a ‘thing’ with independent effects for human life. It is this search for the essence of time that has bedevilled the development of a social theory of time. Neither is horologism – a study of time-measurement – any advance on temporal essentialism. Studies such as Waugh’s (1999) and Brand’s (1999) merely evade essentialism through concentrating on histories of time measurement. Their studies imply essentialism: the history of horology shows that time-measuring instruments from early sundials and water clocks to contemporary atomic clocks are approaching the essence of time through increasing accuracy of time measurement. The circularity here is that time is a provisional outcome of its most accurate measuring device, with the real essence of time just over the temporal horizon – never finally ‘pinned down’ by the horological instrument. Even atomic clocks are not absolutely accurate (Falk, 1998). The single second they gain/lose in three million years of (theoretical) working yields room for improvement!

If the essence of time is pertinent to developing a social theory of time then prospective social theories of time are at the mercy of reified time and theories of natural, transcendent time. Adam’s instinct – to separate out natural and social time in order to develop a theory of the latter – was correct. But she felt unable to do it in practice, maintaining the dualism throughout two books, whilst denying that she was doing it. If a distinction between social and natural time cannot be maintained, then social time theorists are inevitably drawn into speculations about natural time, the relations between social/natural time and what time really is, argues Lukacher (1998). However:

“Rigorously speaking, we cannot say whether time is finite or infinite, or if there is an infinite series of finite universes that rise and fall, or whether creation is sequentially singular or simultaneously multiple (i.e. “the multiverse”) (Lukacher, 1998, p.4).

Speculation which delves into these issues is what gives time-fetishism new life, argues Lukacher. His strategy is not to search for the essence of time but to explore ‘what has been said, what arguments, concepts, words, and images have been used to indicate the persistent aporia of time and/or to conceal, evade, or simply ignore it.’ (pp.4-5). His programme for the study of time is basically a cultural study of the philosophy of time: how different philosophic concepts of time are embedded in their respective societies – from ancient Greece to the Moderns (Schopenhaur, Kant and Hegel through to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida). Whilst this programme de-fetishises time, in practice Lukacher’s analysis is based on a narrow view of where time concepts ultimately emanate from: philosophy. The study by Alliez (1996), is a deeper version of a cultural history of time. He relates changes in the conception of time more closely to social transformations (religion in particular), but the emphasis is still primarily upon philosophy. But this really misses the point. Even if these writers had explored concepts of time as developed within particular societies in a fuller sense – beyond the confines of philosophy and religion – without a social theory of time they are merely adding on temporal-historical/cultural relativism to Adam’s multiple times.

In this section we have indicated what, for us, are positions to avoid in developing a social theory of time (or a theory of social time). On the one hand: rich descriptions – with accompanying relativism, solipsism and no sense of the social form of time. On the other hand: abstract, a-historical and formalistic accounts – with weak to non-existent social content, invoking the debilitating problems of transcendentalism, naturalism, essentialism, reification and time-fetishism. Before developing our own alternative, the next section examines briefly Adam’s (1995) account of the speed of life.

The Speed Barrier

“There is always a battle against time, against the obstacles that prevent or delay the fulfilment of a desire or the repossession of something cherished but lost” (Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1996, p.37).

Time theorists have described the speed of life in increasing detail. They have catalogued the apparent quickening of time in many areas of contemporary social life, yet so far explanations of the phenomenon have been either superficial or half-hearted. James Gleick (1999) is a case in point. Whilst providing striking anecdotes and examples of the speed of life within a vast range of spaces, sites, organisations, institutions and everyday experience, Gleick’s ‘explanation’ of it comprises an unsystematic listing of what he calls the ‘new accelerators’ (pp.49-56). These ‘new accelerators’ are supposed to explain the speeding up of social life. The list includes amphetamines (speeding up athletes), caffeine, alcohol and tobacco as ‘speed-based pursuits’ (p.50), science fiction (especially time travel stories) and transport. This hardly amounts to an explanation of the speed of life in contemporary society. It could also be argued that Gleick confuses explanadum with explanans, as some of his explanations of the speed of life – the ‘new accelerators’ – appear to be aspects of the phenomenon requiring explanation. Luke’s (1998) explanation of the speed of life is a little more systematic than Gleick’s, but it still amounts basically to listing aspects of what he calls ‘kinetic culture’: for example, Motorola’s Iridium digital communications network.

Barbara Adam, in Timewatch (1995), provides a much more sophisticated and powerful explanation of the speed of life, the apparent quickening of the pace of life in contemporary society. Adam starts out from the notion of efficiency and the social drive to increase efficiency in search of profit in contemporary society. Profitability, she notes, is a function of the amount of money spent on labour time. Thus: to be competitive ‘is to be faster than your rival’ (p.100, our emphasis). Labour is speeded up so that enterprises are increasingly profitable through producing more in a given period of labour time.

However, notes Adam, although ‘speed is valued’ and the ‘valorization of speed’ pertains to many areas of life – education, sport (as examples) – ‘speed is not itself a value’ (ibid.). She notes that in some Middle Eastern and African countries speed and haste are negatively valued. Fortunately, Adam realises that this sort of comparison is getting her nowhere and notes that the ‘contemporary speed fetishism’ requires another look at the ‘work-time-money-efficiency-profit circle’ (p.101). She argues that the ‘time economy’ can be viewed as the ‘implication of time in the economic investment-return-profit cycle’ (ibid.). The shorter the time between investment and its return, then the greater the profit. The motivation is for firms to shorten production cycles so that profit is spun off in ever decreasing time periods.

Secondly, Adam argues that although profit is an underpinning force for increased speed in economic life, competition plays a role. If a firm produces a commodity of equal quality in less time than the majority of other enterprises then, everything else being equal, that enterprise can reduce its prices on the back of this increased productivity. More production is crammed into the same amount of time.

It is profitability and competition that are at the basis of the speeding up of economic life for Adam, and these factors underscore the ‘Western’ approach to time and speed, she argues. This is a purely quantitative approach to time, and:

“One of the rationales for the Western approach to speed is thus to be sought in the quantification, decontextualization, rationalization and commodification of time, in the calculation of time in relation to money, efficiency, competition and profit” (1995, p.101).

Adam then contrasts this form of time, which is associated with ‘economics and the quantitative time of the clock’ (ibid.), with open-ended time given over to caring, friendships and personal relations. At this point the analysis tails off into moralistic criticisms of quantitative clock time, particularly how it devalues the times (and lives) of those working to gentler rhythms.

In her brief analysis of the speed of life (1995, pp.100-102), Adam gets further in three pages than the superficial and descriptive approach incorporated in the whole of Gleick’s book. On the other hand, Gleick provides a scattergun approach to a broader spectrum of social life. Adam’s account erects a kind of speed barrier: there is some plausibility to her explanation of the speed of economic life, but her concentration on the economic limits the utility of her explanation in terms of the speeding up of social life in toto. Furthermore, profit and competition (with the concept of efficiency) do too much work, even within the narrow economic sphere. The accounts of the links between profit and competition, time and the need to save time in economic life (thus generating speed) terminate in the concept of profit. Adam’s account of profit as motivator for time saving is wholly one-sided. She fails to discuss labour as existing in but also against capital on the issue of labour-time; resistances to speed-up in the first instance, but also the general ‘battle over time’ in the labour process. Profit appears as magical motivator, abstracted from social relations of production, unexplained and taken-for-granted and its relation to labour-time is under-theorised. Despite these criticisms, in these few pages in Timewatch, Adam points the way towards a deeper analysis of the speed of life – an analysis developed in the rest of this paper.

Before setting out on this analysis, it should be noted that Adam’s work on the speed of economic life also indicates the need to break the speed barrier. That is, to frame an explanation of the speed of life which does not just pertain to economic life. One way out of this might be through the work of Antonio Negri (with Hardt 1994; 1996). In these works, Negri develops a theory of the factory-society or social factory. On this basis, the drive to save labour-time and all the Modern techniques of timesaving (Taylorism, time-management, job analysis and flexibilisation of labour and so on) are extended to the whole of society. However, Negri downplays the role of value in explanations of the phenomena of contemporary society [9] – whereas in our explanation of the speed of life we start out from value, as the following section makes clear.

Karl Marx’s Social Universe

“…happiness lies also in knowledge of the meteors…” (Karl Marx, Doctoral Dissertation 1841, p.68).

The purpose of this section is to provide an elaboration of the Einsteinisation of time that gets beyond the philosophical and sociological speculations so far examined. Following Einstein’s method we will situate our social theory of time within a social cosmology of the movement of matter. The main point of our exposition is that it is only possible to overcome the problems highlighted with other sociological theories of time if time is considered not as a discrete social event; but, rather, when time is understood as the temporal aspect of the expansive social universe. The point of this exposition is then to develop a social cosmology within which that universe can be observed and an understanding of social time derived. It is our contention that the most developed theoretical cosmology of the social universe is found in the work of Karl Marx. While Marx has provided us with a framework with which to chart the motions of social phenomena his work is by no means complete and there is much work that needs to be done. While, up till now, Marxist theories of time have done much to increase our understanding of the development of abstract-machine-clock- time and its relation to the regulation of labour (Debord, Thompson…etc), the full extent of Marx’s social theory has not yet been developed.

The significance of the relationship between Marx and Einstein’s cosmologies has been referred to elsewhere:

“Although Marx rejected the method of classical science, he continued to use its metaphors, supplemented with others from evolutionary biology. Had he written Capital only forty years later, the theory of relativity would have been to hand to provide a more adequate language for his thought, which was in advance of the science of his day.. Unfortunately the language of Marxism has not taken advantage of the theory of relativity, and for the most part has remained Newtonian, spiced with the imagery of geology (levels and fissures)” (Kay and Mott, 1982, p.77).

While Marx did not have Einstein’s theory of relativity to work from he was more versed in atomic theory than Kay and Mott recognise. From his very earliest writing Marx is concerned with the relation between physics and ethics as expressed through an investigation into the social consequences of atomic theory. Marx’s doctoral dissertation ‘Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in General’ (1841) is based on the idea that knowledge of the world of atoms and matter is as crucial to us as it was to the ancient philosophers. The ancient Greeks understood that a careful enquiry into the matter and motion of meteors freed one both from a fear of non-being and from the world of motion that appeared to be outside the comprehension and control of oneself. From an understanding of the way in which the universe moves Marx and the ancient philosophers argue that:

“… we can explain fear away and free ourselves from it, by showing the causes of meteors and other things that are always happening and cause the utmost alarm to other people” (DeGolyer, in McCarthy, 1992, p.125).

Or: “…happiness lies also in knowledge of the meteors…’ (Marx, 1841, p.68).

Marx finds the basis for a new materialist philosophy in the difference between the atomic theories of Epicurus and Democritus. For Democritus the downward motion of atoms in a straight line was the only causation in the universe: deviation was precluded. However, Epicurus argued that atoms react to each other in a movement that causes them to swerve. The swerve is based on the repulsion between one atom and another, by which the atom becomes conscious of itself. In this way the atom as the foundation of matter becomes matter only in the relation of repulsion from another atom. This swerving is a physical act which carries with it creative aspects of non-determination which are lost in Democritus’s determined world. For Epicurus it was only in interaction that matter in the form of atoms can come fully into being and to realise its existence as the source and essence of matter. From this material explanation on the movement of atoms Epicurus extrapolated on the existence of a human reality of social justice based on the concept of community. Thus in Epicurean philosophy not only does Marx find a way to unify content and form, but he also discovers a link between the physical principle of a swerving atom and the propensity for the intellect for self-conscious theorising. The element common to both the intellect and the atom is freedom (DeGloyer and Baronovitch, 1992):

“Therefore, just as the atom is nothing but the natural form of abstract individual self consciousness, so sensuous nature is only the objectified, empirical, individual self consciousness, and this is sensuousness. Hence the sense are the only criteria in concrete nature, just as abstract reason is the only criteria in the world of atoms” (from Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation of 1841, in DeGloyer, p.125).

Marx also makes the link between the ignorance of astronomers and political economists. According to Marx’s Dissertation Notebooks, private property – “worshipped” as an unbreakable principle and foundation of society and individual effort – actually corresponds to the same deference given by the ignorant in Epicurus’s day to the course of the planets and stars. Epicurus sought to understand the make up and operation of the planets, thereby abolish the myths, and thus bring to human beings into the central, self-conscious position they merited. As Marx noted, Epicurus’s view on these issues opposes Greek philosophy as a whole, for other philosopher’s worshiped the ‘celestial bodies’. Yet, ‘…the system of the celestial bodies is’, Marx said ‘…the first naïve and nature determined existence of true reason and that the same position is taken by the Greek self-consciousness in the domain of the mind. It is the solar system of the mind.’ Hence, ‘…the Greek philosophers…worshipped their own mind in the celestial bodies’ (DeGolyer, 1992, p.121) And, by implication, political economists worship their own intellects in the movement of money and commodities.

It's cosmic

Marx’s social universe is based on value, which he clearly considered in cosmological terms:

“All the phenomena of the universe, whether produced by the hand of man or indeed the universal laws of physics, are not to be conceived of as acts of creation but solely as a reordering of matter. Composition and separation are the only elements found by the human mind whenever it analysis the notion of reproduction; and so it is with the reproduction of value” (Marx, 1987, footnote, p.133).

The substance of Marx’s social universe is not simply labour, but abstract labour, understood as ‘a very developed totality’:

“Although labour appears to be a simple category…Nevertheless when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple category… Indifference toward any specific kind of labour, presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant” (Marx, 1858, p.103).

Marx develops this exposition of the ’very developed totality’ through his labour theory of value. For Marx, value is not merely an economic category, but is the social substance out of which capitalist society is derived: the social matter for analysing the way in which human activities are incorporated into capitalist work. Value is a multi-dimensional field of social energy: a social substance with a directional dynamic (expansion) but no social identity. In order to exist and expand it must take on an identity or exist in the form of a thing/commodity. In the moment of its becoming a thing (metamorphosis) in a series of things (transubstantiation) all trace of the movement or the process by which value expands through the thing is lost.

Or, another way of saying the same thing, is that the logic of Marx’s social universe is the production of the expansion of non-materiality: a substance without a form, or abstraction which must exist as a real abstraction. Value is not then an empty, inert, neutral space but is the matter and the anti-matter of Marx’s social universe. Karl Marx is describing a social world where subject and objects are compressed into each other in a space that ceases to be symmetrical. Just as Einstein forced physics to break with the conception of linear motion and the separation of energy (motion) from inertia (rest) and define a world in which forces acting at a distance across space from one object to another, force object and space-time where united in a single concrete formulation, whose structural principle was discontinuity; so too, within Marx's exposition of the production of surplus-value, the subjects and objects of property were compressed into each other by class struggle (Kay and Mott, 1982, pp.75-78). What makes the concept and reality of value so ‘cosmic’ is that social science has no way of dealing with the concept of value as understood by Marx. Value does not exist in the way in which things are imagined to exist in the social sciences. Faced with this problem social science attempts to contain Marx’s concept by reducing it to things it can understand: Marxist economics or Marxist sociology. This is as true in sociological theorising about time as it is with regard to any other problematic.

In Marx's universe, expansion occurs through the logic of capitalist work. This logic is the unavoidable principle of capitalist society: the very developed totality. In this conjunction, human life is forced to take on the existence of labour-in-capital: human life is forced to exist as its opposite (as in Neary and Taylor, 1998; Dinerstein and Neary, 2000; Holloway, 1995; Rikowski, 1999 and 2000; and Dinerstein, 1998a and 1998b). Based on this dynamic contradiction the social universe expands or moves through the struggle in and against the logic of capitalist work and the attempt by the logic of capitalist work to avoid the crisis that is always threatening to overwhelm it: a crisis which presents itself as the possibility of another form of humanity. Or, to put it in Einsteinian terms: Marx is offering us a way by which we might get into the future.

E=MC.2 or C-M-C/M-C-M’

Einstein had a formula for the dynamic and explosive relationship between matter, motion and energy, expressed in the equation e=mc.2. E = energy, M=mass and c is the speed of light. Through this, Einstein expresses the enormous power of the universe and the way in which it can be captured in the social world and put to devastatingly negative and positive (Chernobyl?) effect. Marx also provides a formula for the way in which social energy is converted into enormous power. Like Einstein this equation demonstrates the positive aspects of energy. For Marx, in its current condition, the world has been overwhelmed by the way in which this social power has been put to use: capitalism is the negative social power; but, this social power also possesses the progressive possibility by which it may be brought under human control for the benefit of humanity: communism. This formula, described by Marx as the general theory of capital, is expressed as C-M-C/M-C-M’, in which M represents money and C is the commodity. The first circuit, C-M-C describes money being transformed into commodities: selling in order to buy. The subject of this process is the buyer whose needs form the basis for and are satisfied by the transaction. However, the genius in the formula is that by simply reversing the polarity M-C-M’ Marx provides the basis for the logic of his social universe: money is advance in order that it may become more money. In this circuit the needs of the subject are central but subordinate to the dominant logic of the process which is now the production of more money. The subject of the process in now money itself and its continuing expansion. The circulation of money becomes an end in itself: the valorisation of value takes place within the constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital therefore appears to be limitless.

It is important to remember that in this formula both money and the commodity form function only as different modes of existence of value itself, the money as its general mode of existence, the commodity as its particular or, so to speak, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific form of appearance assumed in turn by self valorising value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form of money and commodities:

“…it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus value from itself considered as original value and thus valorises itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus value is its own movement, its valorisation is therefore self-valorisation. By virtue of it being value it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring…” (Marx, 1867, p.255).

Communism inverts the polarity/subjectivity and replaces the logic of social expansion where the subject is value, in the form of money, with the logic of human need and subjectivity.

The dominance of the logic of M-C-M’ means that its underlying principle: the logic of capitalist work, has expanded to include all aspects of human sociability. Value has becomes the multi-dimensional matrix which forms the substance of capitalist social relations. All aspects of human sociability become really subsumed by the logic of capitalist work:

“The entire society becomes one enormous factory, or rather, the factory spreads throughout the whole society. In this situation, production is social and all activities are productive” (Negri, 1989, p.204).

The expansion of the logic of capitalist work, and the struggle over its imposition, is extended to the level of society:

“… the capitalist form of large scale industry reproduces this same division of labour in a still more monstrous shape in the factory proper, by converting the worker into a living appendage of the machine; and everywhere outside the factory...” (Marx, 1867, p.615 - our emphasis).

During the moment of real subsumption of labour, the contradiction inherent in the struggle over the production of capitalist work is intensified and social antagonism is generated not simply at the level of the factory but at the level of society. Or, society is antagonism raised to the most intolerable level. ‘Capital is not simply a form of class domination but a form of society: a developed totality ‘ (Negri, 1989, p.67 – origimal emphasis). Class struggle has not come to an end but has been displaced onto a terrain, which pertains to human totality (Negri,1989, p.174): a social universe.


In Marx’s social universe time does not exist before the event, but emerges out of the contradictory logic of expansion as both the measure of value and also the rhythm or the beat or the pulse or the rate at which this process occurs. Time is the temporal dimension of the expansion of value. Marx’s develops his ideas on the temporal aspect of capitalist society through the concept and reality of socially necessary time. A commodity has value only because of the abstract labour that has materialised in it which is measured by quantity of the value forming substance that the object contains. Marx’s great leap out of classical political economy was to recognise that quantity was a direct result of the amount of time taken to produce the article (that would clearly cause irreconcilable theoretical problems based on reconciling the different speeds at which people work), but, rather to see quantity as a social fraction or social average of the total amount of labour power of that society: Although composed of ‘innumerable individual units’ each unit is not a discrete, disconnected period of time but serves as a social average of ‘one homogeneous mass’ of the ‘very developed totality’:

“Socially necessary labour time is then the labour time required to produce any use value under the condition of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent in that society” (Marx, 1867, p.129).

What Marx is explaining is that while the amount of value in society remains constant during the period when this value is being produced the amount of socially necessary labour time needed to produce the commodity is reduced. As the pressure is to constantly expand the amount of surplus value being extracted there is corresponding pressure to reduce the amount of socially necessary labour time in the production of commodities What is being recognised is not the simply quantity of use values: an increase in productivity will increase the quantity of things; but, rather, the fact that the change in socially necessary labour time changes the magnitude of value of the individual commodities produced rather than the total value produced per unit time.

What is being recognised in the process is not the amount of value produced; but, rather the magnitude of (surplus) value that is recoverable. This is not then simply a quantitative equation, but is a regulatory device as to what constitutes the socially accepted standard for the expenditure of human energy (labour-power). This reduction re-determines the normative social labour unit, what is being defined is not simply the quantity of social labour, but the standard of what constitutes social time. While the abstract measurement of time remains the same, this process is set within the frameworks of abstract time: day, hours, minutes, seconds, there is a change in the normative social labour hour.

The effect of this relation is both dynamic and directional imposing a law-like quality independent of human will. Socially necessary labour time becomes the measure of the speed of human activity. Although this speed works at different rates of velocity, with a tendency for that velocity to accelerate: speed is relative, it is also the case that in the moment when socially necessary labour time is socially recognised: at the moment at which commodities are exchanged, this is regarded as an absolute measure at that moment in time. This formulation of the relation between the relative and the absolute is again Einsteinian in its conceptualisation. Although Einstein’s theory is entitled the theory of relativity an important aspect of the theory is what is constant about the universe. For Einstein, the one constant was the speed of light and that was the measure against which all other movement is measured. In the social world Marx also provides us with a social measure: socially necessary labour time: the speed of life.

Link to Part Two:
Speed of Life - Part Two
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